Another popular explanation for the GOP’s losses last cycle is technical. The Democrats have pulled ahead in technology, the argument goes, and left their rivals scrambling with antiquated, buggy systems. Think ORCA’s maiden voyage crash on Election Day. But ask online strategists and they’ll say the GOP isn’t far behind, although it’s clear that more of the party’s money and focus need to be shifted onto the Web.
“For any given campaign the TV budget is anywhere from 60 to 70 percent [of the total spent]. You shift that 10-15 percent online, think of how different this election cycle would have looked with that,” says Jen Harrington, an online strategist with the Prosper Group.
Democrats don’t have a technical edge, insists Harrington, despite the Obama campaign’s perceived proficiency with social media and online profiling that have left the impression Republicans lag behind in everything from online tools to TV ad testing. “The technology is out there. It’s just about who applies it in the political realm better,” she says.
For Harrington, it’s not a question of reevaluating the pitch Republicans make to voters. “The message hasn’t changed, only how it’s delivered,” she says. “We need to be shifting budgets to where our voters and our donors are.”
The party’s financiers and consulting class are at odds with the base of the party, which has been on a streak of nominating candidates that even mainstream Republicans say fall short. Just look at the spending by outside groups.
American Crossroads spent more than $104 million in 2012, but none of the Republicans it spent money in support of won. Two of its opposed candidates did lose, which means it got a 1.29 percent return on its investment, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign spending.
“As a party, we have put more emphasis and more value on a consultant than we have on a grassroots member of our organization,” says Andrew Hemingway, who headed up Newt Gingrich’s New Hampshire presidential primary campaign. “We need to start to listen to these people again. Technology underlies all of that.”
Hemingway is a candidate for the state party’s chairmanship, reversing the well-trodden party staffer-to-consultant track. That gives him a leg up, he tells party voters. “We need to get those tools in the hands of our activists.”
“We claim that we’re a grassroots party,” he says, disputing Barbour’s view of the “bottom-up” GOP. “We claim that we’re against the centralization of power. We fight those things but we run our party, perhaps, from a top-down perspective.”
The notion that Republicans need a more collaborative approach isn’t novel. In fact, it’s already been borne out. After leaving Iowa that unseasonably warm day, Fred Davis incorporated King’s suggestions into an ad campaign that his firm crafted around the congressman’s biography.
“I don’t think we had one negative ad in the primary or the general,” says Davis, whose firm Strategic Perception also made ads for Deb Fischer during the Nebraska Senate race.
When all the votes were counted King won by more than eight points. “I didn’t think that he needed to be anything other than what he really was,” says Davis. “Lo and behold, the voters agreed.”
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine.